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ASU professor is using new tool to find missing U.S. soldiers from Vietnam War: Digital archeology

Archaeologists at Arizona State University are working with the federal government to try to find the remains of U.S. service members still unaccounted for from the Vietnam War. And, the scientists and the Defense POW/MIA Accountability Agency, or DPAA, are using a relatively new method to try to find remains in Cambodia.

Christopher Nicholson is an associate research professor in ASU's School of Human Evolution and Social Change. He’s also the executive director of the Center for Digital Antiquity there, and he joined The Show to discuss how he started the work he's doing in Cambodia and more.

Full interview

Christopher, how did it come to be that you're doing the work you're doing in Cambodia?

CHRISTOPHER NICHOLSON: Sure. A couple of years ago, about two years ago, we were approached by the DPAA in their innovations program to do some type of project related to digital archaeology. And thinking about how information that they derive from past projects can maybe be used in a new and innovative way. And in thinking about how those hard copy documents that they produced from early projects can be turned into some type of digital product that can help them in their mission of trying to find missing service personnel.

When you talk about the concept of digital archaeology, what exactly are you talking about?

NICHOLSON: Yeah, this is becoming more and more, I guess, popular within archaeology, thinking about how the information that's derived from the archaeological record. And that can be anything from information derived thousands of years ago, up until maybe 50 years ago, is born digital. That is, that the information that we get in the field has been produced by some type of computational machine. And then suddenly we have data and all sorts of other information that we can use to tell us something more about past human behavior. So now with digital archaeology, it's everything from the creation of digital information into the field to the actual curation of digital information that can be used later in time for some other type of project.

So, how are you trying to use that to find remains of American service members who, who were serving, mostly it sounds like who were involved in, in aviation accidents during the Vietnam War.

NICHOLSON: Yes. So when we started the project, we weren't really sure what we were gonna do. You know, GIS models are becoming more and more also popular in archaeology, GIS being geographic information science models, that is the science of where things are. And so we came up with this idea, if we could use the location of existing DPAA sites where they've actually gone on the ground and look for missing service personnel, if we could use that known information with some other known environmental data to try to maybe predict or come up with a probability map of where they might find these sites in the future. That way when they're doing their planning activities, they can look at a map and say, based on these environmental parameters, we have a, there's a good probability that we will locate missing service personnel, material down the line.

So what kind of other factors are you looking at?

NICHOLSON: We looked at environmental variables such as elevation slope, ax aspect, the curvature of the earth or the land form, the distance to rivers in a vulnerability index that we created.

And what is that?

NICHOLSON: It's sort of looking at the susceptibility of different vegetation on the landscape to maybe decay. So we can use things like environmental variables, like climate precipitation and temperature, to, to sort of look at the susceptibility of the land to to different impacts.

So does all of this mean then that you are trying to create, it sounds like, more favorable conditions for other people to go into the field, to sort of know where to go into the field to maybe look for remains, as opposed to going in the field and like looking at, you know, looking at whether there's particular vegetation at this spot versus that spot and saying, OK, this this might be the place.

NICHOLSON: Yeah, this is actually a really good planning tool because in a lot of cases, there's anecdotal information that the DPAA historians might have about a crash location. And so they'll begin to research some different information about it. This type of model can maybe help them to say, OK, well, yes, this is an area where there is high probability for for us to locate these types of remains. And so it's a good idea to continue down the line with doing research to see if we can actually, if one of these missions will be successful.

I'm curious like what, like at what point will you be able to say this is working or this is not working? Like what's the, what's the timeline in terms of maybe trying to actually locate remains?

NICHOLSON: Yeah. So this is a brand new model for us. We just actually completed this in late 2023. So now what we want to do is actually ground troop the model. So as the DPAA continues with projects in Cambodia and across southeast Asia, we'd like to be able to use this model as part of their planning process. And then once they do locate an area, to sort of plug that location into our model and actually determine if it is of high probability or not, and then actually see if it's there or not.

Yeah. I'm wondering if this kind of modeling might have applications beyond what you're using it for right now, even maybe beyond trying to locate, you know, remains of service members in other parts of the world.

NICHOLSON: Oh yeah, we think that this is actually applicable to any part of the world, right. Coming up with different environmental parameters or, or other GIS and spatial information that might inform us about the land itself. Because, you know, typically when we do these types of models, they're typically called predictive models in archaeology, where you have some type of human behavior that you're trying to understand from a, a spatial perspective. And so usually predictive models like this attempt to recreate that behavior.

But in this case, we're trying to examine a random behavior that is airplane crashes, right? And so we have to think about other types of information that might be useful in the recovery of a missing service personnel. Not necessarily why the aircraft got to be where it is at a particular point. So things maybe like soil acidity, or maybe things like the size of the aircraft, or the amount of munitions on the aircraft, can tell us something about the success rate of actually finding missing service personnel. So these models really can be used for all sorts of different things if we can find the data and information that might give us some insight as to why you find something in one place but not in another.

Sure. So I want to go back to talking a little bit about what you referenced as digital archaeology. And I'm curious, especially because I think for a lot of folks when they think about archaeology, they're thinking about, like, ancient Greece, ancient Rome, things that are really, really old. Not things that, you know, not times in, in life that a lot of people who are still alive actually lived through, like the Vietnam War.

NICHOLSON: Yeah. So, you know, exactly when a lot of people think of archaeology, they think of, you know, the distant past. And I think you've got some great examples of there.

But now there's even a newer segment of archaeology, called historical archaeology that begins to look over maybe the past 100 or 200 years, where we do have written records of information, but we also have a lot of remains left from those activities and in, in places like, you know, back east in places like Virginia. If you think of places like Monticello, where Thomas Jefferson's home is, right. They do all sorts of excavations there, looking at the way he lived, the different slave quarters, enslaved people, where they lived and worked on a daily basis. And so even within that historic period, we can begin to learn a little bit more about the daily lives of people.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.